DARRINGTON — The sticky sweet smell of freshly cut Douglas fir and Hemlock trees filled the air Thursday as boards destined for Home Depots and construction sites shot out of the Hampton Lumber Mill on a forest-green conveyor belt.
Set in the shadow of Whitehorse Mountain, the Darrington mill uses about 100 truckloads of logs a day. It’s the town’s single largest employer, with 125 of its 170 employees calling the area home.
Right now, the mill is operating at 75% capacity. That’s because there aren’t enough logs coming in for the mill to run full-force, CEO Steve Zika said.
The number of private timber owners with trees the appropriate age for harvesting — 50 to 60 years old — are dwindling. At the same time, Zika said regulatory hold-ups are preventing the mill from purchasing enough timber off public lands.
More than half the mill’s logs come from state Department of Natural Resources land, with a small fraction from national forests. But to stay open, Zika said, the company will have to increase its public sourcing to about 70%.
Every decade, the Department of Natural Resources passes a Sustainable Harvest Calculation, the volume of timber to be sold from DNR lands over a 10-year period.
Policymakers are in the throes of passing a new calculation, and Hampton is making its case for more access.
The number of sales were cut short during the past 10-year period, state Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said. She paid a visit to the Darrington mill Thursday.
More than 175,000 acres of DNR land have been locked out of harvest as the department works on a conservation plan for the marbled murrelet, a threatened bird species that nests in large conifer trees.
The next harvest calculation can’t be passed until the plan is complete. It should be finished by the end of this year, Franz said.
Right now, the Hampton mill buys about $25 million of timber from the DNR annually, Zika said. That generates $6 million for Snohomish County schools and services per year, DNR communications director Carlo Davis said.
To keep the mill going, Zika said they need to purchase more timber from DNR land to balance out the decrease in private harvests.
But he’s worried they may get less access in the next plan.
“It’s so critical with our mill up here,” Zika said. “That’s what we just want to express … our desperate nature in terms of that timber supply as we move forward.”
As talks continue for a new sustainable harvest plan, Franz said there are a number of competing interests.
Chiefly, lawmakers are working to protect critical marbled murrelet habitat while also providing enough timber sales to fund schools and services, keep businesses like Hampton mills afloat and maintain forestland to prevent wildfire.
“It surprises me how much there’s this tension between the environment and timber and the economy,” Franz said. “When honestly they really are, and should more than anything else in our state other than maybe agriculture, be working collectively together.”
Julia-Grace Sanders: 425-339-3439; email@example.com.